Battles in the ancient world (part 1)

What kinds of battles were fought in the ancient world? I think you can probably define eight different types of battles, namely: pitched battles, meeting engagements, surprise attacks, ambushes, skirmishes, raids, sieges, and naval battles. In the coming blog posts, I will briefly discuss each of these different types of battles, try to characterize them, and provide a few examples from history. If you think I have omitted any types of battles, feel free to let me know in the comment section below, on our Facebook Page, or via email.

The pitched battle

When we think of battles in the ancient world, we probably most often think about pitched battles, especially the set-piece battles fought between large armies. An example would be the Battle of Marathon, fought between the Persians and the Athenians in 490 BC. This battle also featured the earliest known example of double envelopment. The Athenian battle line was deliberately weak in the centre, and was instructed to retreat in an orderly fashion to lure the Persians in. Once the Persians had started to pursue them, the left and right wings of the Athenian line wheeled round and slammed into the Persian troops, causing them to panic and rout. (See also the Ancient Warfare special of 2011.)

A pitched battle could only occur when both sides decided to stand and fight, often with the express aim of forcing a decisive outcome. A general would normally only decide to fight if he thought that his chances for victory were good. An example is the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC), where the Roman general Gaius Marius took up position on a hill and dared the Teutones to attack them at this advantageous position (see also Ancient Warfare V.1). Only seldom do we encounter a pitched battle that is more similar to a desperate last stand. The textbook example of the latter is the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), in which a small army under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas occupied a narrow pass against the numerically superior Persian host, with no hope of actually winning the engagement.

One of the earliest known pitched battles was the Battle of Megiddo, fought ca. 1457 BC. It is also the earliest known battle for which we have sufficiently detailed information – inscriptions from the temple at of Amun at Karnak – to attempt a reconstruction. It was fought between the Egyptian army of Thutmose III and a coalition of Canaanite kings united under the King of Kadesh. The Canaanites had rebelled against Egypt’s rule upon the death of Queen Hatshepsut, the aunt and co-ruler of Thutmose for some twenty years. Thutmose marched his army toward Megiddo, a notorious hotspot of strategic importance that has been the scene of multiple battles throughout history. The Egyptian and Canaanite forces fight a pitched battle, with the Egyptians eventually able to drive off their enemies. The King of Kadesh retreats behind the walls of the city of Megiddo, which is taken after a siege (see also Ancient Warfare II.5).

There are many more examples of pitched battles throughout ancient history, such as the Battle of Plataea (479 BC) and the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC). We know about these battles almost exclusively from ancient written sources. The famous Battle of Issus (333 BC) – in which Alexander the Great faced off against the Persian King Darius III himself – was also the subject of the famous Alexander Mosaic. This magnificent piece of art, unearthed in Pompeii, dates from ca. 100 BC, but was probably based on an earlier, perhaps near-contemporary Greek painting of the third century BC.

Like most military engagements, the object of a pitched battle was to defeat the enemy forces, either by killing them or, more practically, by forcing them to rout. The Romans suffered perhaps their greatest defeat during the Second Punic War in the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). There, a Roman force under the command of Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus fought the army of Hannibal in open terrain. The Carthaginians were outnumbered. However, the Romans deployed their heavy infantry in a much deeper formation than normal, enabling the Carthaginians to envelop them. Out of more than 86,000 Roman troops, only a fraction survived. Polybius even claims that the Carthaginians killed 70,000 soldiers and took some 10,000 men captive. Livy gives lower casualty figures, but this does little to diminish the impact that the battle had on the Roman psyche.

The total annihilation of the enemy only appears infrequently. Herodotus tells of the so-called “Battle of the Champions”, fought in the sixth century BC and also briefly discussed in my Henchmen of Ares. For this pitched battle, the Spartans and the Argives had decided to have their disputes settled by armies of 300 picked men each. The rest of the armed forces would retreat to their home cities and await the outcome of the battle. At the end of the fighting, only three warriors were left alive: two Argives and a Spartan. The Argives considered themselves victor and rushed back home to Argos to inform the home front. But the Spartan survivor, Othryades, stayed at his post and stripped the enemy of their armour. When the Spartans and Argives returned to the battlefield, neither side was willing to conceit defeat and a massive battle erupted between them, which was eventually won by the Spartans (Hdt. 1.82).

Leave a Reply